Europe’s Untold History With Egyptian Mummies

History

| LAST UPDATE 06/09/2022

By Stanley Wickens
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Researchers have been studying Egyptian mummies for as long as we can remember. After all, there are so many fascinating facts and mysteries to learn about the way ancient civilization preserved and buried the dead. But for a few centuries, Europeans were a little obsessed with these mummies - and for a rather peculiar reason.

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Europeans believed that ingesting the bandaged bodies of mummies could be the cure for any pain or illness in the body. It was such a widespread idea that, by the 12th century, apothecaries were importing remains of mummies from Egypt to Europe to turn them into a medicinal substance called "mumia" for human consumption. From then until 500 years later, mummies were prescribed as a medicine to both the rich and poor across the continent.

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Before the world was introduced to antibiotics, ground-up human remains were evidently the "magic pill" that was believed to treat headaches, reduce inflammation, and even cure the plague. However, it seems not everyone in the medical community back then was convinced of the medicinal properties of preserved Egyptian bodies. After finding out that "forged mummies" were being made from deceased peasants in Alexandria in 1564, royal doctor Guy de la Fontaine realized people weren't always being prescribed, actual ancient mummies. But the fact that mummies were being faked to later be turned into "medicine" illustrated an interesting point: there was such a high demand for mumia that the supply of real Egyptian mummies wasn't enough to meet it. 

Other doctors in Medieval Europe also believed ancient mummies shouldn't be used as medicine - but only because they thought fresh human meat and blood were the ideal medicinal substances. One notable figure who was convinced of this belief was King Charles II of England, who took medication made of human skulls after he suffered a seizure. But he wasn't the only one - until 1909, using human skulls to treat neurological conditions was a common practice. By the turn of the 20th century, the use of Egyptian mummies - whether for medicinal purposes or for the mummy unwrapping parties of the Victorian era - was banned. However, the black market of antiquity smuggling - including mummies - remains alive and is worth around $3 billion. Although no doctor today would consider prescribing a mummy to a sick patient, these ancient remains are unfortunately still a commodity today.

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